December 30, 2009 10:37:00 AM
Four days and counting.
That''s how long before the Mississippi State women''s basketball team has before it begins the next part of its testing.
At 7 tonight, MSU (8-4) will take on Alcorn State (0-8) at Humphrey Coliseum in its final tune-up before it kicks off its 16-game Southeastern Conference schedule at 2 p.m. Sunday at Auburn.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis has said the 2009-10 campaign, like all seasons, will break down into different phases. Tonight''s game will give the Lady Bulldogs a chance to regroup after an 81-60 loss to then-No. 12 Xavier on Dec. 20 and the holiday break.
MSU returned to practice Dec. 26 and has been working the rust off to prepare for Alcorn State and to ensure it is ready to raise its level of play for the SEC slate.
"We seemed to come back focused and with energy. We seem like we have made progress," Fanning-Otis said. "The players are listening and working hard and doing what we''re asking them to do."
Fanning-Otis reiterated that the Lady Bulldogs are working to deliver 40 minutes of focused and energized basketball every night. The first 12 games of the season have produced a MSU team that won all of the games it was supposed to win. Unfortunately, the Lady Bulldogs failed to win any of the games they could have won -- particularly losses to Texas, Rutgers, and Southern California at the Paradise Jam in November in the Virgin Islands.
As a result, MSU''s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and its Strength of Schedule (SOS) of 93 and 134, through games played Monday according to CollegeRPI.com, rank in the bottom half of the SEC.
The 16-game SEC schedule will provide MSU with plenty of opportunities to bolster those numbers, which the NCAA tournament selection committee uses to pick the at-large teams for the 64-team field.
MSU''s numbers will take a hit tonight against a winless Alcorn State team that has a RPI of 318 out of 347. But the Lady Bulldogs will get an opportunity Sunday to balance those figures against Auburn (RPI of 26, SOS of 25).
But Fanning-Otis doesn''t want the Lady Bulldogs to get too far ahead of themselves. She knows the team will have plenty of chances to earn marquee victories that will bolster the team''s résumé. Her focus is on doing what she can to help the team play to its potential every night so it can live up to the preseason expectations (picked to finish third in the SEC by the league coaches).
"We have to rebound and take care of the basketball on a consistent basis," Fanning-Otis said. "The other point when we came back that we have addressed is if we are going to play hard enough on defense to keep teams under 40 percent (shooting from the field)."
Fanning-Otis said MSU has done some things well in all of its losses. She said the constant the team needs to develop is maintaining a focus, especially in tight games. Whether it is getting three consecutive stops on defense or blocking out to get a defensive rebound, Fanning-Otis hopes her players have learned lessons from the first 12 games. She said she has talked with the team about starting a new phase of the season Sunday and what she can do as a coach to help the team come together.
With senior guard Alexis Rack (19.8 points per game) and senior forward Tysheka Grimes (6.9 rebounds per game) leading the team in those two categories, Fanning-Otis feels her team will be ready.
She also believes bench players like Bethany Washington, Danielle Rector, Rima Kalonda, Channa Campbell, and Ashlie Billingslea are doing what they can to help play contributing roles to give the Lady Bulldogs greater depth.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.